Opinion: It’s time for Utah chefs to get off their gas

Fine cuisine is no longer about making food that simply tastes good; it’s about doing good, for people and the planet.

Thanks to value-conscious consumers, “slow food,” “farm-to-table,” “organic” and “local” are becoming new maxims for chefs around the world seeking to maintain relevance and esteem. For instance, the James Beard Awards, one of the food world’s most prestigious honors, made headlines in 2021 for evaluating candidates based on their “demonstrated commitment to racial and gender equity, community, environmental sustainability and a culture where all can thrive.”

Fine cuisine is no longer about making food that simply tastes good; it’s about doing good, for people and the planet.

However, that quest faces a vexing paradox: Many cooks insist on preparing their so-called sustainable fare on gas stoves — with fossil fuels. Scientists have long known that gas stoves emit chemicals — such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and benzene — that adversely affect air quality and human health. A recent study concluded that almost 13% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. can be attributed to gas stove use. Another found that combustion from gas stoves releases a carcinogenic chemical in higher concentrations than secondhand smoke.

This is particularly troubling for Utahns, who experience on occasion some of the worst air pollution in the country and disproportionately higher rates of asthma compared to the national average.

Yet, for many chefs, giving up gas is considered blasphemous. There’s something machismo about cooking with fire. Images of sweated brows and blue flames licking the edges of saucepans add to the drama of popular television cooking shows, feeding the myth that “cooking with gas” is simply better.

Indeed, the American Gas Association coined “Now we’re cooking with gas!” in the 1930s as an advertising slogan when households were transitioning from wood-fueled stoves, and gas was competing with electric-coil stoves for its place in American kitchens. Framed as synonymous with “doing it right,” the slogan was first planted into comedian Bob Hope’s radio shows. Then, in a viral sprint pre-TikTokers could only dream about, the slogan was echoed by the likes of comedian Jack Benny, Looney Tunes’ Daffy Duck and it-girl Marlene Dietrich until it had cemented itself into the American lexicon.

“Cooking with gas” became cool, and gas stoves ultimately became the trophies of the modern kitchen. Today, “cooking with gas” indoctrination lives on on Instagram.

Meanwhile, electric induction stoves, which use an oscillating magnetic field called electromagnetism rather than a gas-fueled flame, have been around for decades. They are about three times more energy efficient than gas stoves and can be powered by renewable energy like wind and solar, so they have a clear edge on environmental impact alone.

But perhaps less known, or underestimated, are how induction stoves outcompete their gas-powered peers on actual cooking. Induction can cook in a heartbeat, boiling water more than twice as fast as gas. They are easy to clean and don’t require noisy ventilation fans, reducing prep time and potential communication errors between servers and cooks. No flames reduce the risk of burns and kitchen fires. Kitchen temperatures stay low, so cooks don’t need to stand in refrigerators to cool down between shifts.

They’re more cost-effective too. Chef Chris Galarza, founder of Forward Dining Solutions and the EcoChef certification system, has done the math on clean-up alone:

“Imagine you’re paying your staff $20 an hour, and you’re saving 30 minutes [from each staffer not having to clean gas stoves] per shift, that’s a savings of $200 a day – so that’s 20 staff times $10 for the half-hour saved,” Galarza said. “$1,400 a week, which then is about $6,000 a month, which then is about $18,000 per quarter and $72,000 annually … so that savings add up.”

These savings don’t even include reduced water and degreaser costs. Induction’s cooking speeds enables faster meal preparations, which may result in better tips, more customers served and, ultimately, more revenues — a potential competitive advantage in an industry that’s often understaffed and subject to rush hours.

Induction’s sustainability, health, cost and convenience advantages over gas are just starting to become understood in America. While induction is popular in Europe and Asia, it has captured less than 5% of the U.S. household market.

Fortunately, many trail-blazing chefs are in the know. Alice Waters, famous for mothering the farm-to-table movement over fifty years ago has committed to induction for her Berkeley restaurants. Others, such as Jon Kung and Tu David Phu are also committed adopters. Here in Utah, Kanab’s Shon Foster of Sego Restaurant has used a full induction kitchen, including a wok, since 2015!

Gas stove-defenders often claim that meals cooked on induction lack a certain je ne sais quoi. Did the gas lobbyists get that right? Skeptics may just have to pay a visit to Waters’ Chez Panisse or Foster’s Sego Restaurant and taste for themselves.

(Photo courtesy of Edwin R. Stafford) Victoria N. Stafford

(Photo courtesy of Edwin R. Stafford) Edwin R. Stafford

Victoria N. Stafford is a board member of Slow Food Utah, and her father, Edwin R. Stafford, is a marketing professor at Utah State University.

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